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Accepted Paper:

The predicament of material agency: can we still think through things?  
Valentina Gamberi (Research Centre for Material Culture)

Paper short abstract:

The paper explores the concept of material agency within the debate opened by 'New Materialisms' and the 'ontological turn'. By analysing fieldwork where Indian artefacts escape from the museum curators' control, the possibility of a non-ethnocentric description of the material is investigated.

Paper long abstract:

After Gell's Art and Agency (1998), the concept of agency has become the core of further reflections within the scholarly debate. Particularly, the idea of treating the non-human in terms of human features such as rationality has been identified as a critical aspect in the epistemological justification of the material culture studies. As scholars belonging to 'New Materialisms' and the 'ontological turn' (cfr. Coole, 2005; Holbraad, 2011; Santos-Granero, 2009) have stressed, the theorisations on materiality have been flawed by a substantial ethnocentric approach or a 'residual individualism' (Coole, 2005, 126), according to which the material is considered as a passive, inert matter upon which intellect imposes itself (cfr. Viveiros de Castro, 2012, 57 and Ingold, 2000, 339-340). However, dismissing the concept of agency because of its intrinsic ethnocentricity can run the risk of impoverishing the analysis on the social impact of the non-human or, to quote Coole, 'it becomes impossible to sustain any but the most conservative aleatory sense of political life' (Coole, 2005, 125).

The paper reflects on the notion of material agency by analysing a case study where artefacts escape from human control. Indian religious objects which establish dar┼Ťan, namely the relationship between the seer and the Hindu deity's embodiment, once exhibited in museum galleries, engage with visitors independently from the curators' plans. By adopting phenomenology as methodology, the study reveals the 'chiaroscuro of agentic capacities' (Coole, 2005, 126) and propose possible ways of problematising the concept of material.

Panel P147
Encountering materialities
  Session 1